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MEN OF MATHEMATICS
Like several of the first-rank mathematicians Abel discovered
his talent early. A brutal schoolmaster unwittingly threw
opportunity Abel's way. Education in the first decades of the
nineteenth century was virile, at least in Norway. Corporal
punishment, as the simplest method of toughening the pupils'
characters and gratifying the sadistic inclinations of the
masterful pedagogues, was generously administered for every
trivial offence. Abel was not awakened through his own skin,
as Newton is said to have been by that thundering kick donated
by a playmate, but by the sacrifice of a fellow student who had
been flogged so unmercifully that he died. This was a bit too
thick even for the rugged school board and they deprived the
teacher of his job. A competent but by no means brilliant
mathematician filled the vacancy, Bernt Michael Holmboe
(1795-1850), who was later to edit the first edition of Abel's
collected works in 1839.
Abel at the time was about fifteen. Up till now he had shown
BO marked talent for anything except taking his troubles with
a sense of humour. Under the kindly, enlightened Holmboe's
teaching Abel suddenly discovered what he was. At sixteen he
began reading privately and thoroughly digesting the great
works of his predecessors, including some of those of Newton,
Euler, and Lagrange. Thereafter real mathematics was not only
his serious occupation but his fascinating delight. Asked some
years later how he had managed to forge ahead so rapidly to
the front lank he replied, 'By studying the masters, not their
pupils* - a prescription some popular writers of textbooks might
do well to mention in their prefaces as an antidote to the
poisonous mediocrity of their uninspired pedagogics.
Holmboe and Abel soon became close friends. Although the
teacher was himself no creative mathematician he knew and
appreciated the masterpieces of mathematics, and under his
eager suggestions Abel was soon mastering the toughest of the
classics, including the Bisquisitfones Arittimeticae of Gauss.
To-day it is a commonplace that many fine things the old
masters thought they had proved were not really proved at all.
Particularly is this true of some of Euler's work on infinite
series and some of Lagrange's on analysis. Abel's keen mind
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